The theological virtue of hope remains perhaps the most poorly understood virtue in the modern age. While prudence and justice can be readily demonstrated, or charity and faith outlined, hope tends to be commonly conflated with wishful thinking; hardly a virtuous quality at all. Yet, in reality, the value of hope can hardly be overstated. Through the study of the Scriptures and Saint Thomas Aquinas' articles in the Summa Theologiae, a deeper understanding of this virtue may be revealed. The faithful Christian should understand that virtuous hope exceeds wishful thinking and is in fact necessary for salvation.
Saint Thomas addresses the virtue of hope in the second part of the second book of the Summa, questions 17 to 22. The scope of this post will concentrate on question 18, which focuses on how hope exists regularly in the faithful and in what way it reaches its proper end. Saint Thomas' lecture on the letter to the Romans, looking even further into the virtue of hope, will be considered, as it elucidates his Summa article. Between these sources, the Church has a thorough treatise on the virtue of hope.
Saint Thomas establishes the subject and the object of hope. As a virtue, hope resides in the human will.1 Its object is the attainment of God.2 Thus, hope can be defined as the movement of the will for the attainment of God. In simple terms, a Christian develops in the virtue of hope as he grows in the desire for God and the things of God. Saint Thomas clarifies that hope is distinct from faith or charity, however. Whereas charity is a love for God Himself, hope is a trust in God for His promise of future fulfillment: ultimately, in heaven.3 As an example in the earthly lives of the saints, hope was manifested by great expressions of personal abandonment and surrender. The early martyrs, for instance, who would go willing to persecution, had hope in heaven as their reward for remaining true to Christ's teaching.
Saint Thomas also uses Sacred Scripture to develop his theology on hope. In particular, he offers a lecture on a passage from the Letter to the Romans which relates to the virtue. The passage in question is Romans 8:23-27:
23 ...but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. 27 And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
In his lecture, Saint Thomas teaches that hope is not a virtue which exists in those saints now in heaven. Rather, because hope is a “groaning” for what is unseen- in other words, something in the future- it is proper only to those who have not yet achieved heaven. Furthermore, the epistle states that “in this hope we are saved” (Rom 8:24). Saint Thomas reads into this point, noting the importance of hope for one's own salvation.4 In fact, the practice of hoping for one's salvation is what leads one to that salvation. This makes sense in that as the Christian grows in relationship with God, he will desire Him more deeply. Concurrently, as the desire which is hope grows, he will conform his life to grace more and more, ultimately leading to salvation. This economy of virtue and grace end when a soul reaches its goal; when the Christian enters into promised salvation of heaven.
The exposition of this teaching on the virtue of hope may sound totally foreign to the world today. Two contrasting ideologies are prevalent which directly conflict with Saint Thomas' teaching on hope: nihilism and universalism. Nihilism hinges on the beliefs that life has no higher meaning and that nothing exists after death. From this ideology, hope cannot exist at all. The nihilist denies and suppresses any desire for salvation or anything unseen. The hopelessness of nihilism is not foreign to popular society today, especially prevailing over much of the modern entertainment industry. On the other hand, an opposite ideology can be found in a distorted universalism. The term can be used licitly in the sense that Jesus extends His message of salvation to all people, including Gentiles and the marginalized.5 However, it becomes distorted when conflated with the notion of presumption: that salvation is a given for all people. The idea that all people automatically go to heaven opposes the virtue of hope by trivializing salvation. Rather than growing in desire for and committing to a life of virtue in order to achieve salvation, the universalist has no motivation for hope, assuming that salvation is assured. While this ideology may be primarily unspoken, it pervades many modern Christians who are misled by a misunderstood or perverted gospel. In either case, the virtue of hope is often contradicted in the modern world.
However, Saint Thomas offers ample reason to counter these ideologies, looking especially to the Scriptures. The Old Testament is full of references to the virtue of hope in one form or another. Perhaps the most basic outline appears in the book of Exodus. God's chosen people are enslaved in the land of Egypt and long to be delivered. Literally, “the Israelites groaned under their bondage and cried out, and from their bondage their cry for help went up to God” (Ex. 2:23). Just as Saint Thomas notes in the letter to the Romans, the inner groaning and longing is the foundation of hope. Hearing their cry, God proposes to deliver them through Moses. However, His plan relies on their cooperation: their hope. They must desire to be delivered and, when the time comes, to follow His guiding hand out of Egypt. When they are faithful to Him and trust that He will save them, they are saved. This outline in the history of Israel typifies the importance of hope even in the individual soul.
Many of the Psalms also prescribe hope. Saint Thomas specifically notes Psalm 62, which says, “Trust (hope) in him at all times, my people!” (Ps. 62:8). He relates this to the teaching about the necessity of hope for salvation (Lecture 5, 682).6 Another example can be found in Psalm 69, in which the psalmist says, “Let not those who hope in thee be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts” (Ps 69:6) and “You who seek God, let your hearts revive. For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds” (Ps 69:32-33). Here, the psalmist recognizes the importance of hope even and especially in times of distress. He prays that his trials not impede anyone's hope, but instead rely on God's promise of deliverance and salvation. Many of the Psalms relate hope to a remembrance of God's mighty works of the past. Psalm 78, for example, instructs the people to recall the acts of God such as in the Exodus. By remembering the Exodus and miraculous freedom from slavery in Egypt, the people will please the Lord in the current day. On the other hand, when they “forget His deeds” (Ps 78:10), they fail to walk in His ways.
The prophets, too, outline hope as a prerequisite of salvation. Chapter 62 of Isaiah is a quintessential example, even without giving a discourse specifically on hope. Speaking to a humiliated remnant people, the prophet Isaiah foretells God's salvation. He speaks hopefully of the future, but he is not merely offering empty words of comfort. Rather, he says, “The Lord has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm” (Is. 62:8). His encouragement is rooted in the promises which God makes. Thus, he can say, “Behold, your salvation comes” (Is. 62:11) with trust and hope in the future happiness to come.
The prevalence of hope in the economy of salvation is not limited to the Old Testament nor lost in the New. While the Old Testament generally addresses hope in the scope of a deliverance from earthly afflictions, the New Testament sees hope as ordered to heaven, inseparable from Christ Himself. Saint Thomas references 1 Peter, “...Our Lord Jesus Christ, who in His great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pt 1:3). This passage continues, offering a powerful discourse on faith and hope together and the salvation which is their goal. Because of Jesus' resurrection, His triumph over death, and His promise of the share in that triumph, the Christian has reason for hope and a goal to hope for. Peter proposes this as the very basis of his preaching. Saint Thomas would notice that for Peter, hope is a necessity for the believer. If a person believes in Jesus' death and resurrection, he also must have hope in his own salvation.
In the letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, the Apostle relates a development of the theological virtues. He begins with the act of faith which justifies the believer, granting him access to grace through Jesus (Rom 5:2-5). Paul says that hope is even then the object of boasting. Hope in the glory of God is so sure that it ought to be boasted, in the sense that it is proclaimed with certitude. Hope even transforms suffering and afflictions from evil things into means of perfecting virtue. Furthermore, “hope does not disappoint,” (Rom 5:5) Paul says, because it in turn leads to charity. The hope he speaks of, then, is not wishful thinking; it is firm, resolute, and sure. It is ordered ultimately towards the redemption won by Christ.
With a more clear understanding of hope outlined by Saint Thomas and the Scriptures, the opposing ideologies can be addressed more directly. The nihilistic worldview contradicts hope by the denial of any future reality. If there is no afterlife, no heaven or even hell, there is neither a promise nor a reason to hope. Unfortunately, hope cannot pierce into a nihilist's heart by itself. First, the spark of faith is necessary. The unbeliever must assent even in the slightest to allow the virtue of faith to develop. With that movement, it becomes possible to have hope for salvation. Thus, if the atheist seriously ponders, What if there is something beyond the finite material world?, then he is faced with the proposition of happiness; that is, salvation.
In the other aforementioned ideology, the distorted universalism view contradicts hope by presuming salvation as a given, making hope redundant or obsolete. If all believers- or even all people in general- are saved and promised heaven, the development of hope would be pointless. Without recognizing the very need for salvation, denying the desire for things yet unseen, the person does not properly approach God. The assumption of God's gift is only presumption rather than trust. To counteract this ideology, the Christian must understand the proper teaching of the Church on our need for constancy in virtue. As Saint Paul reprimands the Galatians, our salvation is sure only through properly ordered faith. Moreover, as Saint James clarifies, “works” are necessary insofar as Christians seek to do the will of God, not presuming justification exempts them from activity. When a person becomes complacent and suppresses the desire for the promised union with God, he fails to excel in the very virtue which would lead to that salvation. Just as in the Old Testament, God's promise in Christ is true, but hinges on the Christian obeying His commands and conforming themselves to His grace. Thus, an active hope is necessary for salvation.
In fact, Jesus exemplifies the virtue of hope through revelation and in the Church. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus instructs his disciples to anticipate the salvation to come. In the Gospel of Luke, for example, Jesus preaches, “All the nations of the world seek these [their needs] and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well” (Luke 12:30-31). The exhortation to seek the kingdom of God is nothing short of an invitation to hope. Jesus prioritizes the true end, union with the Father, over any earthly concern. He explains that the virtue of hope will put into order the rest of life's needs. Later, as Jesus approaches the time of His passion, He exhorts his disciples to be vigilant. He says to them, “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36). This instruction is a call to an active hope. Those who desire to join the Son of Man in glory, to be redeemed by Him, must remain active in that desire, praying for the strength to persevere. Without a doubt, Jesus impresses on His followers the importance of hope in the economy of salvation.
Furthermore, Jesus Himself participates in a kind of hope. Although because He is God, He does not hope to be in union with God,7 He nonetheless prays with anticipation for the future salvation of those He redeems. In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays to God the Father in what is called the “High priestly prayer.” Here, Jesus asks, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one” (Jn 17:11) and further, Jesus prays, “...that they may be brought to perfection as one” (Jn 17:23). Here, Jesus prays for the future union of the faithful to God. He is the one going to redeem mankind by His passion, yet He does not simply rest on the knowledge that things will work out. Rather, He demonstrates a desire and yearning for the salvation of mankind and their union with God, yet unseen. While Saint Thomas would clarify that hoping on the behalf of another is properly charity rather than hope,8 Jesus certainly exemplifies and models the importance of hope for salvation. If even the Savior yearns in anticipation of man's salvation, how much more should the Christian adhere to the virtue of hope?
In conclusion, the virtue of hope is indispensable in the economy of salvation. For every Christian advancing in the virtuous life, faith must progress to an active desire for unity with God in heaven. This desire is neither baseless whimsy nor a fanciful wish, but a trust in the Lord's promise for salvation and deliverance. To inform the Christian's understanding of hope, the Scriptures contain numerous passages and references. Saint Thomas uses these in his outline of theology to clarify and demonstrate how hope may be fostered and nourished. The virtue of hope may be often misunderstood or contradicted in the world. Yet, as a theological virtue, it remains God's will to gift hope in the souls of all mankind, that they may in turn grow in desire of Him.
2 ST, II-II, q. 17. a. 1. Aquinas Institute Text Engine.
3 ST, II-II, q. 17, a. 6. Aquinas Institute Text Engine.
5 Pablo Gadenz. The Gospel of Luke. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academy, 2018), p. 22.
6 Thomas Aquinas, In ad Romanos, VIII, 8, Lect. 5, n. 682, Aquinas Institute Text Engine.